If Kyle Schwarber was a cryptocurrency, his plummeting value last season would have made Bitcoin look like a money market account. Those who’d been calling for him to be traded to an AL team for pitching raised their voices, then were joined in the chorus by some of even the most staunch Schwarber supporters who reluctantly changed their respective tunes.
The Cubs front office, however, was not among those questioning their commitment to the man they saw fit to reach for with the No. 4 pick. They knew Schwarber was more than a novelty act whose bubble had already burst following that improbable World Series performance.
“If anyone wants to sell their Kyle Schwarber stock, we’re buying,” Theo Epstein said last May when the slugger was in the midst of his much-discussed skid. “If they want to sell low, we’ll buy low.”
Ten months later, nothing has changed. If anything, the Cubs are even more bullish following Schwarber’s late-season improvement and offseason fitness overhaul.
“I just know we really believe in the person, and we really believe in the hitter,” Epstein said Tuesday in Mesa. “Yes, I’ve been wrong. But I’ll bet on this guy.”
Even though spring stats don’t bear as much figurative weight as that Schwarber carried on his shoulders in 2017, it’s hard to ignore what he has been doing in Arizona. He’s slashing like a Wes Craven movie, posting a 1.233 OPS highlighted by seven extra-base hits. And though he’s struck out 13 times, his eight walks are tied with Kris Bryant for the team lead in fake games.
What does bear weight, or at least this is what I’d like to think, is that Schwarber appears to be much more comfortable at the plate. A skeptic might say that’s simply a matter of the low-pressure setting or that it’s confirmation bias playing tricks on my untrained eye. What I see, though, is a hitter displaying maturity and confidence born of more than just his ballyhooed weight loss.
That has translated to Schwarber loosening up both physically and mentally while getting away from the bad habits that developed from trying to slug his way out of a slump. Perhaps the most frustrating byproduct of that was his two-strike approach, which suffered as he grew overly patient early in counts. Schwarber would watch good pitches go by, then would engage swing mode with home-run-or-bust intentions.
“The one thing I’m seeing is that he’s not swinging as hard,” Maddon said of Schwarber’s new approach. “You’d have to get all the data to validate what I think I’m seeing. It’s more hands, less arms, and with that it’s easier. He’s doing it easier.”
So what could that mean for Schwarber’s production? Don’t take what follows too literally, but Maddon had a very lofty comp for his left fielder.
“Just think about Vladimir Guerrero,” said Maddon, whose tenure with the Angels overlapped the Hall of Fame outfielder’s for two seasons. “He could hit a ball [from his] nose to his toes and it was all about his hands. I thought it was like hitting a pinata at a birthday party. His hands are always adjusted to where the ball was. That’s what a good handsy hitter does and that’s what I’m seeing from Schwarbs.”
Mmmm…handsy. I like the sound of that.